Hollywood, Beware: Apple’s Content Harvest… Has Begun

Tech giant has quietly ordered nearly 20 series, poached top executives and set Oscar ambitions

Apple Hollywood Worldwide

Don’t let media consolidation, MoviePass drama or the President’s Twitter account distract you  from one of the biggest stories in Hollywood this summer: the quiet moves Apple is making to do to movies and TV shows what it once did to cell phones.

The tech monolith has ordered almost 20 original shows, a stack of poached and pedigreed executives, A-list collaborators across genres and a reported plan to enter the Oscar race — all to set to start rolling out next year.

Last week saw a flurry of announcements for scripted series with powerhouse brands like Sesame Workshop. Oprah Winfrey also has an overall deal. Apple’s projects will inhabit what insiders predict will be a video platform in the vein of the company’s music streaming service.

The company just added Layne Eskridge, a force behind shows like “Ozark” at rival Netflix, to work as a creative executive under Apple Worldwide Video heads Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht. They were plucked from Sony, and started Apple’s $1 billion content shopping spree last June.

But Apple’s precise plans remain a mystery to many in the Hollywood establishment, according to producers, agents and Apple competitors who spoke to TheWrap.

“There’s a ‘Great and Powerful Oz’ kind of vibe about it,” said one top talent manager and content packager, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They’re kind of elusive, like who is running the thing?”

Tucked away in an anonymous Culver City office, you’ll find Van Amburg and Erlicht with colleagues Angélica Guerra in Latin American programming and Kim Rozenfeld in unscripted, both transplants from Sony Pictures Television. There’s also development chief Matt Cherniss (formerly WGN and Tribune Studios), international lead Morgan Wandell and children’s programming lead Tara Sorensen (both came from Amazon), production head Carol Trussell, Philip Matthys in business affairs (decamped from Hulu) and communications exec Rita Cooper Lee. 

But the manager said Hollywood talent loves Apple for paying their asking prices, and being eager to compete.

“They’re paying real quotes and not trying to squeeze us for less and less the way the studios are on the network side. They’re formidable buyers,” the manager said.

Some old-school content makers and distributors are anxious about how their content will fare on Apple TV and in the film and TV stores on iTunes when the company can give priority to its own slate.

“One of the terrifying things is how easy it will be for Apple to promote their own stuff. They already have a pretty remarkable infrastructure,” said one film studio executive, pointing out that devices like the Apple TV exist solely to organize and streamline content from third parties.

For now.

“When they get their ‘Orange is the New Black’ or their ‘Transparent,’ people are going to show up. Eighty-five million people have an iPhone,” said the executive.

That’s a very slight understatement: iPhone users hit a record high if 85.8 million in April 2017. Apple TV is also accessible on TVs, desktops, laptops and tablets. And you can stream video on your Apple Watch. In this year’s first quarter, Apple estimated that 1.3 billion of its devices were active and installed around the world.

Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that Apple was in negotiations to distribute an animated film from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, and give it, at minimum, a qualifying theatrical release for Oscar consideration.

“[Apple’s] annual spend likely moving toward $2 billion,” BTIG research analyst Rich Greenfield wrote to clients. He also predicted a new Apple video service will rollout by mid-2019, though what its fee structure will be and how it might be connected with Apple’s streaming music service are big lingering questions.

Here’s what Apple’s first content harvest promises:

james corden mariah carey carpool karaoke
Mariah Carey and James Corden on the Apple original series “Carpool Karaoke”

-A few Reese Witherspoon’s projects, clocking a big win for her Hello Sunshine banner. At the moment, Witherspoon is executive producing a thriller series about true crime podcasts starring Octavia Spencer and Lizzy Caplan called “Are You Sleeping”; a currently untitled morning show drama that she’s both producing and starring in with Jennifer Aniston; and a comedy based on Curtis Sittenfield’s short stories, which was put on hold Tuesday after lead Kristen Wiig exited the project due to scheduling conflicts with “Wonder Woman: 1984.”

-Oprah. Two weeks ago, the queen of her own media empire struck an overall content deal that will have her produce original content for her widespread following. She will continue to serve as CEO of OWN, the TV network she founded in 2011.

(The partnership between Winfrey and Apple — which has thus far only set an agreement with Kerry Ehrin, the veteran showrunner who will helm the company’s upcoming Jennifer Aniston-Reese Witherspoon morning show drama — represents a potential threat to Netflix, Amazon and Hulu in the overall-deal arena.)

-Animation. Apple has a musical series from Josh Gad called “Central Park,” with the voice actor roster Gad, Leslie Odom Jr., Titus Burgess, Kristen Bell, Stanley Tucci, Daveed Diggs and Kathryn Hahn.

-Comedy. Apple has ordered “Little Voice,” a “love letter to the musicality of New York,” from J.J. Abrams and Sara Bareilles; and “Dickinson,” a comedy starring Hailee Steinfeld as the titular young author.

-Children’s programming. Apple’s projects include a multi-series order to Sesame Workshop for live-action, animated and puppet series. (HBO still has”Sesame Street.”)

-There’s also the docu-series “Home” from director Matt Tyrnaur, which offers a look inside the world’s most innovative abodes. And Apple is rebooting Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories,” to be executive produced by Spielberg and showrun by “Once Upon a Time” vets Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.

-“Little America,” a show based on true, heartfelt immigrant stories from Oscar-nominated “The Big Sick” writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.

-Short-form news. Apple just landed the international series “Calls,” with a 10-episode order for a new English adaptation of Timothée Hochet’s French hit, co-produced by CANAL+.

Drama. The lineup includes Steven Knight’s “See,” an epic, world-building drama set in the future; an untitled project from “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle; a psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan; an untitled space drama from Ronald D. Moore; and a series about the real-life story of 11-year-old reporter Hilde Lysiak.

And those are just the shows that have been ordered to series, as three are currently in development: “Foundation,” a drama based on Isaac Asimov’s novel series from David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman; “Shantaram,” an international drama series based on the best-selling novel of the same name; and “Swagger,” a basketball-themed drama series in development from NBA star Kevin Durant.

And let’s not forget their inaugural originals “Planet of the Apps” and James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.” Both are currently available via Apple Music.